Experiencing COVID-19 as CDMX's Largest Private Funeral HomeBy Jan Hogewoning | Fri, 06/26/2020 - 17:09
Q: What is your perspective on the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: On a daily basis, more than 150,000 people die around the world. So far, there have been about 300,000 deaths globally due to COVID-19. If you compare these two numbers, then the number of COVID-19 deaths is still relatively low. However, the virus has had a profound impact on countries and regions that are less prepared, which includes Latin America. The city of Madrid saw a death toll of approximately 29,000 people. Comparing this to Mexico City, which is much larger in terms of population, it means that the death toll for Mexico City could be much higher than it is. At the height of the crisis in Madrid, funeral companies were receiving 1,200 bodies a day. We can expect similar numbers. For now, according to official statistics, total deaths are at around 22,000. Since March 24, our company has conducted 1,297 funerals for patients officially diagnosed with COVID-19. At the request of the Mexico City government, we have conducted 449 of these services free of charge. This is something we have done before for victims of the Hidalgo gasoline pipeline explosion in January 2019 and victims of the earthquakes in both 2017 and 1985. Not every family is in a situation to cover the costs of a funeral.
In Mexico, about 650,000 people pass away every year. This translates to approximately 1,700 deaths per day. In Mexico City, the annual number of deaths related to any pathology or incident stands at 120,000. For these deceased individuals, a large number of funerals are managed by ISSSTE. About 35,000 yearly funeral services in Mexico City are managed by private companies like ours. We provide 12,000 to 13,000 services a year, which means 35 percent of services is managed by the private market. J. Garcia López has the most infrastructure, in terms of funeral homes and crematoria. There are only 22 crematoria in Mexico City, and we operate eight of those. These are concessions provided by the government, which require investment in equipment and training of personnel. Each crematorium provides 70 to 75 cremations a day. Some funeral companies do not have a crematorium, which means they sometimes need to wait in line. You could definitely say that the current infrastructure, and the industry as a whole, is saturated and requires more investment.
Q: What action plan did you follow when COVID-19 arrived in Mexico?
A: We participate in international associations of funeral service companies and we were able to learn early on from the experiences of companies in other countries. We started to develop protocols with the federal and city government. The first priority was to ensure the safety of our staff. We have 860 employees who continue to work bravely 24/7. We are the last link in the chain of essential services. The process starts at the hospital, where COVID-19 cases are treated in fully isolated areas. In the case of death, the body first goes through a chemical sanitation treatment before being sealed hermetically in a body bag. The body is then transported to the funeral home, where it is refrigerated before being cremated or buried. Unfortunately, government orders ban all services for COVID-19 victims. Relatives are expected to self-quarantine and cannot hold a reception to pay their respects at home, either. The fact that families and friends effectively are unable to say goodbye to the victims is very hard. We have had funerals with other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis or hepatitis, but this situation is really unique.
The second step was to redefine how to arrange ceremonies for non-COVID-19 victims. At funeral homes, the communal area can only be occupied at 20 percent capacity. Families and friends have to maintain a safe distance from each other and are not able to hug or kiss. The areas are disinfected regularly. We have held about 25 to 35 services under these circumstances at our funeral homes each day. We offer other tools, such as digital funerals, so that people can attend services remotely.
Q: J. Garcia López also provides services to companies. What are these services and what added value to they provide?
A: Our company is 40 years old. More than 30 years ago, we started to create what we call a funeral network with other parties. Today, this network can facilitate a funeral service in any of the 2,460 municipalities in Mexico. With a single call, we can contact our partners and ensure that relatives can find the correct location for services.
Another service we provide is for foreigners who reside in Mexico or are visiting. They can be employees of companies or simply tourists. We had the case of Brazilians who passed away in an accident in Cozumel. They disappeared and were later found by local authorities. Their insurance company contacted us and asked us to oversee the repatriation of their bodies to Brazil. Our agent in Quintana Roo completed all the paperwork, after which the bodies were transported to Mexico City. Then we completed all the legal and practical arrangements here in collaboration with the Brazilian Embassy. Finally, the bodies were sent back.
Access to these kinds of services is useful for any company or entity, such as an embassy, which has employees in the country. We also conduct services for Mexicans who die in other countries; for example, the six Mexicans who passed away in Egypt in 2015. The federal government asked us to facilitate the repatriation of their bodies. Another interesting segment are the 35 million Mexicans living in the US. We attend that market all the time, helping to return bodies to the individual’s place of origin. All of this requires close cooperation with customs agencies, airlines and land transport companies.
Q: How do financing schemes work for funeral services?
A: For six years, we have been working with national and international banks and insurance companies to cover funeral costs for clients and employees. One of the largest banks in the country, of Spanish origin, provides funeral coverage to anyone who has their salary paid through an account of this bank. The bank pays us a small fee for a large number of people, which includes their families, as well. Providing this to clients or employees can be a benefit as part of the company’s commercial strategy. Insurance companies are also interested in offering funeral coverage in their products; for example, in the case of insurance policies covering car accidents. We work with both national and transnational insurance agencies. Today, about 20 million Mexicans have their funeral costs protected.
We have been in talks with the Mexico City government to create a social program related to funeral insurance. One interesting segment is seniors, who are at a greater risk of passing away. If the elderly were able to pay for a funeral coverage scheme, they could benefit greatly in terms of costs. Funerals with us cost an average of MX$36,000 (US$1,560). By paying a premium of MX$60 to MX$70 a month (US$2.60 to 3.03), senior citizens could have everything paid for.
Q: When do you expect services to return to their previous form?
A: Services for non-COVID-19 cases will continue. However, the tradition of grieving together is changing. The key moment will be when the vaccine appears. We expect things will return to normal gradually. In about four months, in October, I expect the curve to start flattening. We have some difficult months ahead.
J. García López is Mexico City’s largest private funeral services provider. The company has multiple services to facilitate funeral planning. In addition, it works with companies to resolve funeral affairs